Memorial Services

A memorial service refers to an annual (or more frequent) group event which invites people to commemorate the life, death and memory of a loved-one in a supportive group setting. A memorial service may be conducted by, or with the assistance of, palliative care volunteers. Grief and loss, pastoral care and/or social work staff typically attend to provide support for attendees if needed.

Although they take many forms, memorial services are generally semi-formal in nature and are hosted in a respectful and peaceful setting that offers the opportunity for members of the group to reflect and recognise their loss. In general the aims might be to:

  • Offer an opportunity for people to commemorate the loss of a loved-one before others. By attending a memorial service a person is recognised as someone who wishes to remember their loved-one and to commemorate them before others, in addition to acknowledging in public the nature of their relationship with the person.
  • Create a space in which the personal experience of suffering loss and grief can be mutually acknowledged. Grief and loss will and do exist well beyond the early days of the funeral service, and beyond the initial attention of friends and relatives which may fade after a few months. A memorial service offers an opportunity for a person to be included in a group who has or is experiencing the grief associated with death and loss. The simple act of inclusion by others can demonstrate that acceptance and validation of their feelings. In this way the memorial service can be therapeutic in nature.
  • Allow an opportunity for people to acknowledge the importance of the emotional and spiritual dimension within their world. For many people the loss of a loved-one can be overshadowed by the day-to-day demands of life and living in a material body and world. This might be at odds with the existential suffering they experience because of their loss, and may lead them to question their values and purpose. A memorial service gives them the opportunity to pause and acknowledge this emotional and spiritual dimension, and to have these dimensions validated. In this way the deliberate act of attending a memorial service can be an important form of testimony through which a person asserts meaning in their life.

Invites will typically be sent based on the recency of their bereavement. Memorial services deliberately invoke memories of people who have died, and for some loved-ones there may be a period after bereavement within which the feelings about death might be too raw for them to attend a service. Some services assess on a person-by-person basis before sending out invitations, others recommend a period of at least 4 months to have passed before attending a memorial event.

The death of a patient also touches the staff and volunteers who have worked with them. Inviting staff and volunteers to share in the memorial event is a healthy way of recognising their contribution to care and support.

The format may vary but it is intended to be respectful, calm and unhurried. A typical format includes:

  • Welcoming participants, perhaps by including the reading of a poem or passage to set the tone and to focus the participants on the reflective nature of the service.
  • Honouring the persons who have died, perhaps with the lighting of a candle as names are read out-on.
  • Pausing to recognise their significance in the lives of their loved ones, perhaps with a moment of silence, to invoke a sense of gratitude and love.
  • Closing comments by the host which offer inspiration and encouragement to the living.
  • A time for refreshments at the end of the service also serves as an opportunity for individuals to share and reflect with each other outside the formality of the service.

Attendees might be given a token gift to take home with them which resonates with the message shared by the host and that symbolises healthy acceptance of death and loss such as a paper butterfly (changes, release), a candle (light, spirit) or a rainbow (new beginning).

Services have many benefits which are secondary to simply remembering the loss of a loved one. It is an opportunity to share with others who have been through a similar experience, or for friends and relatives to stand with a loved one who has been closely touched by bereavement. It is an opportunity to reflect on one’s humanity and mortality, and to mark the passing of time. It is an opportunity for an individual to be moved further toward healthy completion of their grieving, or to reach out for support if they feel stuck.

Individuals will find their own meaning through the service. Familiarity will do much to offer a sense of comfort particularly for people who have attended previously, and for this reason it is probably not necessary to be too creative or novel in format.

A service may be ecumenical in nature but need not be. The setting should offer calm and ease of access. If organising a non-denominational service say in a chapel the organisers might cover up the icons and elements of that particular faith tradition.

Your volunteers will find information on grief, loss and bereavement support in Chapters 8 & 9 of Palliare: A Handbook for Palliative Care Volunteers in NSW (2018). Palliare is available for free download on the VolunteerHub (www.volunteerhub.com.au) website or copies can be ordered through us.

If your service doesn’t have a brochure on grief then the DL sized brochure from Palliative Care Australia ‘Now What? Understanding Grief’ might be of interest see www.pca.org.au.

The National Association for Loss and Grief NSW (NALAG) has an extensive range of resources available through their website www.nalag.org.au which are available for no cost. They also have training programs in loss and grief, and they are a member based organisation which offers benefits to members including eNews and discounts on training.